It was a masterly stroke of Harry Christophers, founder and conductor of The Sixteen, to programme the German requiems of two German composers, born three centuries apart.
Known for their performances of Renaissance polyphonic works, The Sixteen were on home territory for Schütz's Musikalische Exequien, but miles away from Brahms's masterpiece. And just what was an "authentic" small-scale choir doing attempting such a large Romantic work?
Delving a little deeper, we discover that Brahms was very taken with Schütz, paying homage to his predecessor's requiem by setting the same text ("Selig sind die Toten" from the Book of Revelation) in the last movement of his own Requiem.
The Sixteen (actually 18) began with Schütz's three-part work, accompanied by chamber organ, two theorbos (long-necked lutes), a cello and a harp. Its texts come from inscriptions on the coffin of Prince Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss, who hoped that he would thus be guaranteed passage to Heaven. Christophers emphasised the wonderful rhythmic lilt of the music, soloists and choir answering and imitating each other in splendid antiphonal writing. Too bad the QEH acoustic was so inappropriate.
But Brahms's Requiem was a triumph. Instead of the usual vast orchestra, Christophers used the version for piano four-hands. There was a 1872 Bösendorfer (occasionally adding its own squeaks) to provide a gentle clanking accompaniment. Here was a chamber version in a semi-authentic rendering, the choir of 18 bringing a lightness and largely vibrato-less intensity. The piano (with Gary Cooper and Christopher Glynn), while unable to reconstruct orchestral colour and texture, nevertheless served to point the harmonic line with clarity and provide enchanting tinkling in the high register. The only real limitation was its dynamic range. The baritone Eamonn Dougan was marvellously full-toned and authoritative, while the soprano Julie Cooper soared magically, melting hearts and ears. With brisk tempos, it was as if Christophers had lifted a mighty layer of dust from an Old Master. And, best of all, it will eventually be out on CD.